Women in Submarines Face Health Issues

Monday, 05 Apr 2010 09:18 AM

By Rowan Scarborough

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On the surface, the Navy's leadership has sounded exuberant in speaking publicly about its recent decision to begin deploying female sailors in the cramped confines of combat submarines by next year.

But behind the scenes, the prospect of coed submarines is presenting medical and ship-construction challenges.

A specialist on undersea medicine is warning Congress that the air inside a submarine can be hazardous to fetal development.

"Atmosphere controls are different between ships and a submarine's sealed environment," retired Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, a former undersea medical officer, told The Washington Times. "There are all types of organic traces that off-gas into the air that have to be removed by mechanical means. You just can't open a window and let them out."

Adm. Scott said the Office of Naval Research contacted him about serving on a panel to study women and submarine issues, but he never heard back. A spokesman for the office said he had no immediate information on any submarine study.

The Navy is following the template it is using to allow gays in the military. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates voiced support for removing the ban on gays, then ordered a study to determine the impact on combat readiness and military families.

During congressional testimony this year, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, enthusiastically endorsed placing Navy women in subs.

But a comprehensive study apparently has not been conducted and now a working group is being formed to ease the integration.

"There was no study done that prompted leadership to change their minds," said Lt. Justin Cole, a Navy spokesman. "It's been an issue of career progression."

Lt. Cole said the Navy is forming a "Women in Submarines Cross-Functional Working Group" to pave the way for mixed-sex subs once a 30-day deadline passes for Congress to oppose the move.

That does not seem to be an obstacle. When Mr. Mabus and Adm. Roughead testified, no lawmaker objected or asked questions about the impact.

"It is a good plan," Adm. Roughead testified. "I can assure you of that and the submarine force is prepared to execute."

Said Mr. Mabus: "One of the things that we're going to do in this integration is to make sure that any questions are answered by the force, any questions are answered by the families, and that we are very open, transparent about exactly how we're doing this. But we think this is a great idea and that it will be done very smoothly and very professionally and that it will enhance our war-fighting capabilities."

Conservative groups worry about the sexual tension created when young men and women are confined to close quarters during long submerged deployments.

The Navy must figure out how to carve out special women's berthing space in what are already the tightest living and working places in the fleet.

It also must ensure that independent duty hospital corpsman (submarines normally do not deploy with physicians) know women's health issues.

Adm. Scott has written a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, who supports an end to all-male submarine crews.

"I have serious concerns about the risk to the safety and normal development of an embryo-fetus in the submarine environment," wrote Adm. Scott, who was director of undersea medicine and radiation health at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Adm. Scott said a certain percentage of female sailors embark on deployments pregnant or become pregnant during the cruise.

"Unlike surface ships, the sealed environment of the submarine atmosphere poses an increased risk to the normal development of a woman's embryo-fetus," he said.

"In addition, the nature of the operational mission coupled with a very limited medical capability aboard a submarine will significantly increase the risks of survival for women who may be stricken with complications of abnormal pregnancies while under way."

He said a sub's confined atmosphere is a soup of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, aerosol trace elements and "other hazardous substances" — all of which cannot be removed because the ventilation system would be too large. He cited studies that documented the dangers a submarine's air poses to the unborn.

Adm. Scott also raised the issue of combat effectiveness. "Considering that unit cohesiveness, morale and combat effectiveness of the U.S. submarine force and strategic defenses of the country are in the balance, it would be prudent to avoid making any hasty decisions before having all of the facts," he said.

The Navy's plan is to start with adding female officers next year aboard its two largest boats, the 160-sailor Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines and guided-missile submarines. Women would have private staterooms so no immediate renovations would be needed. Ballistic-missile boats are at sea 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as a deterrent to nuclear attack.

Once female officers gain deployment experience, the Navy will begin assigning enlisted women in large enough numbers to create a "critical mass" so they do not feel isolated, Mr. Mabus said.

"We think we have learned a lot from integrating women into our surface ships almost 20 years ago and that those lessons are very applicable today," Mr. Mabus said.

Not everything has gone smoothly. After Congress in 1993 lifted the ban on women on combat surface ships (but not subs), reports surfaced of readiness problems as pregnant sailors were sent home.

One ship had so many pregnant sailors that the news media dubbed it the "Love Boat." A 1997 study by the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center found female sailors often forgot to take birth-control pills and experienced more unwanted pregnancies and higher abortion rates than shore-based women.

The Navy Times reported last year that the number of pregnant sailors in deploying units had nearly doubled to 3,125. The Navy, which has 54,000 servicewomen, wrote a 37-page instruction manual on how to handle expectant mothers. They may not serve aboard ship, or in forward deployed billets, after the 20th week of pregnancy.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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